Rachael Stern never imagined she would wind up in the National Guard. Her sophomore year, she enrolled in an ROTC physical testing class and realized the U.S. military was a path she wanted to take. Now, as an MS4, or senior, she acts as Company Commander of Drake’s ROTC program.
But her career just began. The U.S. Department of Defense announced policy changes earlier this month that will allow women to serve in more direct combat roles, which they are currently restricted from. If she chooses, Stern could advance through the ranks to positions women have never been able to hold before.
“Because of the limited number of assignments, women haven’t had the opportunities men have had,” said Greg Hapgood, a public affairs officer for the Iowa National Guard. “It’s going to level the playing field and open a whole new era in the military for women.”
According to an American Forces press release, allowing women to fill these positions could amount to 14,000 new jobs. The DOD will be removing restrictions that have been in place since 1994, which prohibited women from jobs related to combat units, and only allowed women to have intelligence, communication and logistics jobs in units smaller than brigades.
Hapgood said Iowa would benefit from these changes. Currently, Iowa has approximately 9,400 soldiers and airmen, and 15 percent are female.
Patrick Hendrickson, military science instructor at Drake, served in Iraq in 2003 and returned from Afghanistan last summer. Hendrickson is a member of the infantry — an exclusively male military unit — but said he would feel just as safe working in combat with women.
“Everybody’s green in the army,” he said. “Black, white, yellow, orange, purple, male, female — it doesn’t matter. You’re a soldier.”
The branches that are most affected by these changes are the Army and the Marines Corps. According to the DOD, only 66 percent of Army jobs and 68 percent of Marine Corps jobs are available to women, in comparison to 99 percent of jobs in the Air Force and 88 percent in the Navy.
“There are absolutely no military jobs that would require a penis or a vagina, and therefore all jobs should be open to the people who are qualified to do them, regardless of gender,” said junior Cate O’Donnell, president of Drake’s Student Activists for Gender Equality.
“It’s challenging for me to understand how qualifications would have more to do with your second chromosome and less with your work ethic, physical ability and intelligence,” O’Donnell added. “And to anyone who thinks physical ability is determined by gender, I would challenge them to tell a military woman that.”
Maj. Heather Guck of the Iowa National Guard disagreed. As a woman who has served overseas, Guck said she understands how allowing women to fill more positions could be difficult in several areas.
“Logistics-wise, it’ll cause more planning,” she said. “It’s bigger than just ‘women aren’t equal.’ Women are different. It’s about making sure that you have the amenities available to females.”
Stern agreed that there are justifiable reasons for the restrictions.
“If someone gets shot, is a 140-pound woman going to be able to pull a 200-pound man off?” she said. “You’ve got 80 pounds of plates, and your ruck, and weapon and your helmet. That’s a lot. If you are a big, burly, badass chick, and you can pull that off, go do it! I don’t know if I could.”
She added that sexual harassment is another concern, as well as female hygiene. When in the field, soldiers don’t have access to showers or sometimes even indoor plumbing. O’Donnell countered that hygiene shouldn’t be a problem, but just another aspect of life.
“Are we concerned that women will be unable to go a while without showering?” she said. “Or do we actually fear periods in the same way that eighth grade boys do, and that’s what we mean when we say hygiene? The women who want to be in combat know what they’re signing up for. As far as physical ability, these women would be in training right alongside the men and are just as capable of running, carrying and sacrificing as the men.”
Hendrickson said that despite being in the infantry, female soldiers collaborated with his unit constantly. In many middle-eastern cultures, the men are not allowed to talk to the women, and female U.S. soldiers were the only ones able to communicate to them.
“It will require some planning,” Hapgood said. “People need to understand that it’s about a cultural change as well as the logistical piece.”
Guck has served in Iraq twice and said that the limitations were hardly restricting, and that people respect and support women in the armed forces.
“There is so much more to this than gender equality,” she said. “People think that the army is a bunch of ogres who hate women, but that’s not true. The military has done an excellent job with gender equality.”